In Which Sheer, Bloody-Minded Persistence Is Rewarded
It would be a happier world where each child enjoyed the love and care of two devoted parents to supply a firm foundation on which to build a solid and productive adult life. But, sadly, that is not our world. And it is not the world into which Archibald Burley was born. Little Archie’s story is darker, more desperate, and yet drearily familiar. How not? We have heard it all before: a story old as time and repeated daily the world over; we can recite it by heart. For the plight of unwed mothers is too, too predictable, and Gemma Burley’s descent from prim and respectable Kensington to noisome, crowded Bethnal Green is almost too banal to report in detail. Still, that is the task before us if we are to understand all that flowed from that initial rejection of her and her son by the boy’s father, and all that was to come after…
“Archie!” moaned Gemma, her voice ragged and low. “Archie, come here, my darling, I need you.”
The boy crept to the doorway, slender shoulders hunching, already dreading the request he knew was coming.
“I’m out of medicine. You must run and get me some more.” She held out her hand. “Here is some money.”
“Aw, Mum,” he whined. “Do I have to?”
“Look at me, Archie!”
He raised his eyes to her ravaged face. Hair filthy and matted, her dress soiled, missing buttons, she no longer looked like the woman he knew.
“I’m sick and I need my medicine,” she insisted, strength coming to her voice. “Now. You come here and take this money.”
Moving slowly to the side of her bed, he regarded his mother. Her face haggard, dark circles under her dull eyes, her forehead pale, there was sweat on her upper lip and her flesh looked waxy. He had seen her this way before, and knew with a sinking heart that there would be no supper for him tonight. He held out his hand for the few coins she gave him.
“Now, you be a good boy and run along.”
Head down, the slender body turned and, feet dragging, the lad started away.
“Don’t dawdle, Archie. Promise me.”
“There’s a good boy. Off with you now, and hurry back. We’ll have bread and cheese for your tea. The sooner you come back, the sooner you can have your bread and cheese-we’ll toast it too. You like that, don’t you, Archie? You like your bread and cheese toasted, I know you do. That’s what we’ll have as soon as you get back. You run along now.” She sank back, exhausted. “There’s a good boy.”
Outside, Archie flitted down the cinder path behind the house he and his mother shared with other itinerant lodgers, his fist closed tight on the three coins she had given him-two farthings and a sixpence piece. Tucking the coins into his pocket, he darted down the alley, dodging puddles of standing water and fresh slops emptied from kitchen buckets and chamber pots. At the end of the alley, he picked up his speed-he’d have to hurry now to still have time enough once he’d got the medicine to make it back to the greengrocer and buy or steal another apple or two to sell on the bridge before the bakery closed. Then again, if luck smiled on him, there would be day-old bread out back and he could get that for free. And besides, stale bread was better for toasting anyway.
Once on the street, Archie ran to the nearest chemist and, knowing better than to go in, hurried ’round to the back. He pounded on the door until it rattled.
“Keep yer shirt on, mate,” growled a voice from the other side. A chain was unlatched and a bearded face pressed itself into the space between doorpost and door. “Oh,” said the man with undisguised disappointment. “It’s you. What is it this time? No, let me guess-you want more laudanum.”
“Please, sir, it’s for me mum. She’s terrible sick.”
“You got money?”
The boy held up the silver sixpence.
“Wait here,” said the chemist.
The door closed. Archie stood in the backyard, shifting from one foot to the other, aware that the sun was lowering, the daylight soon fading. It would be late before he could reach the bridge with an apple or two to sell. In a moment, the door opened once more. “Let me have it,” said the man, shoving out his hand.
Archie dropped the coin into the extended palm, which was withdrawn and replaced by a small brown jar. “Tell yer mam she still owes me for last time, hear?”
“I’ll tell her.” Archie was already running back to the lodging, the jar safely in his pocket. His mother was up, waiting for him at the door when he returned, berating him for being slow. He handed over the jar and dashed away again before she could detain him further. He heard her call something after him, but ignored it and ran on. Once on the street, he flew pell-mell down the beaten dirt road, dodging the carts and pedestrians until he reached the shops at the wide intersection.
The greengrocer was already closing up for the day, and the boy had a hard decision to make-wait until the shop was closed and try to find something in the refuse heap in the alley behind… or bargain with the grocer using the two farthings he had left. The evening lull was coming on; the time between the day’s traffic and the night’s was no time to be selling fruit. If he did not hurry, he might not get another sale today, and night was no time to be abroad. Though only eight years old, Archie already knew that nothing good happened on the streets of Bethnal Green after dark.
Digging in his pocket, he snatched up the two farthings and ran to the shop. The greengrocer was just doing up the last shutter. “Three apples,” he gasped breathless.
“I’m closed up, boy.”
“No. Come back tomorrow.”
“Please, sir, they’s fer me mum,” he whined, putting on his best street urchin accent. It was the one he’d learned since arriving in the neighbourhood a year or so ago, and most useful for wheedling and begging. “She’s full sick, she is, an’ asked me to fetch her some apples to help get her well, like.”
“Can’t you see I’ve closed up?”
“I got money-I can pay yers.”
The shopkeeper straightened, turned, and looked at the boy for the first time. “You’re the brat ’as been thieving my stock of late.”
“No, sir,” lied Archie. “I ent nivver stole nuffin’.”
“You look like the one.”
Archie extended a grubby hand with the two small coins. “It’s just three apples.” He offered a forlorn smile. “Fer me sick mum, see?”
“God help us,” sighed the greengrocer. “I must be going soft in the head.” He turned back to the door of his shop. “Wait here.”
Archie stood on the pavement at the door while the shopkeeper rustled about inside. The fellow reappeared a moment later with three good-sized apples. “There,” he said, holding them out. The boy reached for them. “The money first,” he said.
Archie delivered the coins and received the apples. He stuffed two of them in his trouser pockets and ran away again.
“A word of thanks would be in order,” shouted the greengrocer after him.
“Thanks!” called Archie without breaking his stride.
He ran until he reached the bridge, taking up his customary spot. As he suspected, the traffic passing from one side of the city to the other had already begun to dwindle. There were few foot travellers and carts, and even fewer horse-drawn carriages. Yet there were still some making their way from the city to the suburbs. He polished up an apple until it shone, and then went to work, approaching each carriage as it passed and calling loudly, “Buy an apple from an orphan! Buy an apple! Help an orphan!”
With the better prospects-carriages containing well-dressed ladies and gentlemen-he often ran beside the vehicle a little way; sometimes, when they saw his determination, they stopped and he made a good sale. He did not bother approaching pedestrians or any of the hundreds of handcart pushers-he never got anything from them but blunt abuse.
He tried each coach that came his way, but the passengers of the first two did not even look out to see him. The third and fourth vehicles, likewise, rolled on without stopping-as did the next three. He had to wait for the next carriage to come by, but when it did, he managed to make three pence-this from a white-bearded gentleman in a tall silk hat.
After that, there were no more carriages to be seen in either direction. Archie waited for a while, watching the shadows deepen around him and listening to the wash of the river beneath the bridge. There were still a few handcart pushers coming his way, and some workers and others on foot, but no carriages. He wondered if it might be a good idea to run along the embankment to the next bridge. Maybe the traffic there was better and he might still make a sale.
Just as he was about to abandon his post, a lone coach bumped onto the bridge from the opposite end. Archie polished the apple on his shirt once more and put on his most abjectly hopeful expression. One more sale would mean supper for tonight, with maybe a little left over for breakfast. As soon as the horses came abreast of him, the boy leapt to the side of the carriage with his plaintive song: “Help an orphan! Buy an apple!”
The vehicle rattled on, so he began to jog alongside, holding up the apple and calling to those inside. After the third plea, he heard someone call out to the driver, who brought the horses to a halt. Archie stood at the carriage door as the window slid down. “Please, sir,” he called, “buy an apple. Help a poor orphan.”
A face appeared in the window: a youngish, long-nosed fellow with a shock of fair hair falling over a high forehead; he wore a knotted silk cravat with a gold stud. “Let me see the merchandise,” commanded the young gentleman, reaching a gloved hand through the window.
Archie dutifully handed over the apple, saying, “It’s a fresh one, sir. Very good fer yer appetite, sir.”
“Ha!” sneered the young gentleman. “I’ll be the judge of that.” He took a big bite from the middle of the apple, chewed it, swallowed it, then took another. Fully half the apple was gone in two bites. “This apple is bloody rotten!” cried the gentleman, flinging the apple into the gutter. He gave a rude guffaw. “Ta, you little blighter!”
Archie heard the twitter of female laughter from inside the coach. “Driver,” shouted the man, “drive on!”
The coachman, laughing at Archie, snapped the reins, and the horses jolted away.
“Oi! That’s not fair,” shouted Archie. “You ate my apple! You owe me!”
“Yah-boo!” The young toff waved his arm out the window, offering Archie the vee sign with upturned fingers as the carriage rumbled on. The boy scooped the apple from the gutter, drew back his arm, and let fly. The apple struck the broad back of the carriage, but missed the window.
“Thief!” shouted Archie. “You stinking bloody thief!”
Shaking with anger, he watched the back of the retreating carriage, and the thought came to him of running to catch it, jumping on the back. He had heard the older boys talking about this. Once a wealthy occupant had been identified, the boys hitched a ride and rode it to its destination-most often a great house or large town house where they disembarked before anyone was the wiser, and waited for an opportunity to enter the house and steal whatever valuables they might find to carry off.
In this instance, Archie felt the thievery justified: the young aristocrat had stolen from him first. Archie gathered himself. He was just drawing breath to start his run and scramble up onto the footman’s stand of the coach when he heard someone call from the pavement a few paces away. “They’re gone, lad. The damage is done. Let them go.”
Archie glanced around to see that he was being watched by a man in a long black coat and old-fashioned beaver-skin top hat. The man had dark, full moustaches and a little pointed beard shaped like a heart. He appeared to be of middle age and stood with his back to the bridge rail, holding a cane upright over one shoulder.
Embarrassed that his humiliation had been observed and his attempt at retaliation so nearly discovered, Archie felt the colour rising to his cheeks. He turned aside quickly and started to run away. He still had an apple left. If he hurried he could get to the next bridge and maybe still make a sale before dark.
“A moment!” called the man in the black coat. “A moment more of your time.”
Archie looked over his shoulder to see that the man was following him. Ignoring the man, he ran on.
“Wait, I say,” insisted the man. “Come back. I want to talk to you.”
“Can’t stop now,” called Archie.
“I shall definitely make it worth your while,” offered the man.
Although Archie did not fully understand what was being said to him, something about the man’s dry, clipped tones suggested an aristocratic bearing that compelled him to pause and turn back-if only to try selling his last remaining apple. He hurried back, fishing out the apple as he ran.
“I saw what happened,” called the man. “A most deplorable cad, that fellow. He should be publicly horsewhipped.”
“Would you like to buy an apple, sir?” asked the boy, rubbing the red skin of the fruit on his filthy shirt. He held it up to be admired.
“Are you really an orphan?”
“Yes, sir. Orphaned these four years.” He pushed the apple higher. “You like this apple, sir? Very good for you.”
“Tell me the truth, lad. Are you an orphan? I have a particular reason for asking.” When the boy hesitated, the man insisted. “The truth now.”
Archie shook his head. “No, sir. But it’s just me and me mum. I’m not really a orphan.”
“As I thought,” replied the man crisply. “And not a street rascal either, though no doubt well on your way. Here now-” Dipping his fingers into a waistcoat pocket, he withdrew a coin and flipped it to the ragged boy. “That is for telling the truth.”
Archie saw the glint of yellow metal in the fading light and caught the coin in midair. He opened his hand, and his eyes nearly started from his head. On his palm was a solid gold sovereign-a coin he had never seen before, but dreamed about often.
Clutching the coin, Archie extended the apple. “It’s too much, sir,” he said, his throat going dry. In truth, he knew there had to be a mistake, and when the man realised what had happened, he would cry thief and Archie would face a beating or worse-he’d be taken by the bailiff and thrown into gaol. “Please, sir, it’s too much. You made a mistake.”
“No mistake,” said the man, regarding him keenly. “Keep it.”
“Thank you, sir.” Archie whipped the coin out of sight.
The man still held him with a fierce attention. The boy squirmed, growing uncomfortable beneath such unwonted scrutiny. “How would you like a job?”
“I don’t understand, sir,” replied Archie, still holding out the apple.
“A job, lad-work and wages.” The man smiled suddenly. “There are more gold sovereigns to be had.”
Archie said nothing.
“Well? Come now! I could use a persistent, resourceful lad like you. How about it?”
“I don’t know how to do nuffin’-I mean, anything.”
“Do you know Marlborough House? Do you know where to find it?”
Archie shook his head. “No, sir.”
“Well, you’ll have to ask someone. Come to me there first thing tomorrow morning, and we will discuss your future.” He gave the boy a stern look. “Hear me, lad. This could be the most important decision you are ever likely to make. Do you understand me?”
Archie understood the part about more gold sovereigns, so nodded slowly.
“And you will come to me at Marlborough House?”
“I will, sir.”
“Good. I will take you at your word. When you come, ask to see Granville Gower,” said the man, taking the apple at last. “Until tomorrow, then.”